Rise of the Ronin review: A whole slice of fun

Rise of the Ronin review: A whole slice of fun
Images via Team Ninja

Written by 

Ben Williams

Published 

21st Mar 2024 11:00

Rise of the Ronin, the mid-19th century action RPG set in Japan, is finally here - marking an ambitious time for the developer of the Nioh and Ninja Gaiden games: Team Ninja. 

As well as honing its longtime experience crafting sharp samurai and ninja gameplay, Rise of the Ronin marks the first time the team has developed a whole open world to drop it all into. 

Whilst the growing pains are clear indeed, Rise of the Ronin is a solid effort in Team Ninja’s venture into new waters - with its tried and true strengths shining through to captivate all manner of players. 

Spoiler warning: Besides a light spoiler around the opening chapter, this Rise of the Ronin review is completely spoiler-free.

GGRecon Verdict

Accessible, fun, and full of ambition, Rise of the Ronin will have you hooked on its combat no matter what type of player you are - with an exciting story of engaging characters being bloodied icing on the cake. 

Sure, some of its RPG systems won’t be for everyone, but Team Ninja’s first open-world effort is almost everything you could want from an action-packed samurai game set in Japan. 

A tale of two blades

Taking place during the closing Bakumatsu years of the Edo period, Rise of the Ronin pits you in a dark story of civil war following the end of Japan’s isolationist foreign policy and being open to the influence of the West - all whilst your own quest gets caught in the middle. 

Bladesmith tutorial fight in Rise of the Ronin
Click to enlarge

You start as a Veiled Edge assassin - one of two sibling Blade Twins raised in a hidden warrior society, both of which can be customised in the game’s in-depth character creator. 

As events separate you from your Blade Twin during the opening prologue, Rise of the Ronin then throws you into its open world to not only explore the nation’s cities like Yokohama and Edo (19th-century Tokyo) but also to find out what happened to your brother-sister warrior and help decide the fate of a new Japan. 

The classic trinity

As part of Team Ninja’s first rodeo into a title of this scale, Rise of the Ronin embodies the classic three layers of an open-world action RPG: the fun sword-slashing gameplay and all of the systems it entails, the intricate story driving it forward, and the sandbox open world tying it all together. 

While Rise of the Ronin does a great job with the first two given the experience of the team behind it, the third can fall somewhere between overwhelming and formulaic depending on your preference.

By using the one-to-two-hour opening act as a prologue tutorial though, you’ll get used to its satisfying combat and story mechanics before the open world expands on it all and you can decide how to interact with it in line with your play style. 

Countersparks fly

First and foremost in terms of specifics, you can tell Rise of the Ronin has been made by a veteran studio like Team Ninja because, as with the games of its past, the combat is the most engaging part of the experience.

Amongst the vast variety of traditional weapons, firearms, and abilities, the biggest example that comes to mind is the Counterspark - the game’s version of a counter which reduces your enemy’s ki to throw them into a panic, leave them vulnerable to follow-up attacks and potentially even a deliciously devastating critical hit if you've depleted said Ki - which can even decapitate enemies or execute them with an equipped revolver if it’s a finishing blow. 

A critical hit after a Counterspark in Rise of the Ronin
Click to enlarge

Getting the right timing to Counterspark against the game's large assortment of enemy and boss attacks can be tricky, especially on the higher difficulties. This is but an instance of where if you want to be more capable in combat against said bosses and enemies on those higher difficulties, you’ll likely need to grind out a load of open-world busy work - which I’ll get into later. 

At its core though, once you build up your arsenal and get used to the other elements in Rise of the Ronin’s combat, each encounter becomes a total thrill. 

A typical case of all this fun is when you’re forced to coordinate and experiment on the fly both with weapon varieties and combat stances - the latter being a Pokemon/Ghost of Tsushima/rock, paper, scissors-style part of the system where one combat style is more or less effective against opponents with another. 

With the additional special martial skills abilities to consider with combat stances as well, it all comes together to add extra spicy layers of depth - becoming a mental dance or whether to block, dodge, or parry. 

As long as you don't make the wrong decision and aren't punishingly cut down as a result, being your own skilled masterless samurai is all the more exciting knowing it’s one you’ve built yourself.

Changing stances in Rise of the Ronin
Click to enlarge

More so though, if you’re the type of player who isn’t a fan of gruelling Soulslike-ish combat and just want to crack on with the story, slicing up some bad guys along the way, the added ‘Dawn’ Easy mode makes with a far more accessible gateway into Team Ninja’s beloved brand of bloody combat.

The only downside to the combat is from the enemies themselves - the AI for some of which being unrealistically unresponsive if you’ve just had a loud brawl five metres away. Alternatively, some confusingly just turn around and head back to base if you walk outside of the combat zone.

No matter which way though, you'll never get tired of hearing the sounds of clashing metal after a Counterspark before slicing into your enemy with a critical hit.

A whole new(-ish) world

As you journey across Japan throughout the years of the campaign, you’re encouraged to interact with the open world and its inhabitants as much as possible, for better or worse. 

Whilst you can technically beeline the story, what are arguably Rise of the Ronin’s default experiences on the higher Dusk and Twilight difficulties  - one where you need to effectively build your character with the optimal gear, items, abilities, and allies - you’ll need to jump through necessary RPG hoops via side quests, gathering collectables for skill points, and acquiring new combat styles with bonds with other characters.

A fugitive public order fight in Rise of the Ronin
Click to enlarge
 

A lot of the side quests in Rise of the Ronin can feel a little generic - being very “go there to get the objective, fight enemies for the objective, come back and get rewards for the objective”. 

More so, even steps to clearing its map can feel a little bit too much copy-and-paste - with cases like you finding new map objectives by needing to clear out bandits in the red-dotted villages as 'public order' points.

Unless you're the most casual of gamers, clearing Rise of the Ronin's map can start feeling repetitive if you’re already well-versed with open-world games like the Assassin’s Creed series, The Witcher 3, Far Cry, and its aforementioned most comparable contemporary Ghost of Tsushima. 

Thankfully, side missions with the allies you’ll make bonds with throughout the story - the ones which truly matter in optimising your playthrough and character loadout - shine a lot brighter. 

Ryoma in Rise of the Ronin
Click to enlarge

Hosted by an eclectic variety of companion personalities, Rise of the Ronin’s cast is not only entertaining opposite your mostly silent protagonist but only adds to the fun in bringing the story forward, as well as adding some zest into missions by taking them with you as controllable or allied party members. 

You can also use the co-op multiplayer mode to bring other players to make missions even more manageable, but the AI comrades you can take into single-player work just fine too. 

A hard-hitting campaign

As for the story itself, Rise of the Ronin’s campaign totally took me by surprise not just because of its cinematic appeal covering one of the interesting yet darkest times in Japan’s history, but also because this is a retelling of your choosing. 

With the game’s faction system in place, one that has you make choices between siding with the pro-shogunate and anti-shogunate: those who welcome the foreign Western influence or those wanting to drive them out. 

A cutscene with the cast of samurai in Rise of the Ronin
Click to enlarge

Packing a good few twists and turns, which is best to be as spoiler-free as possible, these characters who I initially took as just decent AI allies and companions became prime targets for emotional investment - more so when realising that player choices affect their fate as well as the overall ending. 

As a result, whilst Rise of the Ronin packs tons of replayability trying out different character builds and strategies, you can also have an amazing time trying out different choices and seeing how your decisions impact the story. 

The only thing you shouldn’t experiment with is playing with the not-so-well-done English dub, which sounds just too artificial to be taken seriously in this kind of story. Switch to the Japanese version as soon as you first land in the title menu settings and enjoy the audible bliss of a native dub.

Not totally purrfect

Although not the prettiest game ever made with some graphical pop-ins here and there, Rise of the Ronin’s choice of colour palates and world design make for some charming exploration whether using your glider or riding by horse. 

Sure, you can easily fast-travel as you unlock the many points throughout the game, but the presentation certainly doesn’t make heading to new parts of the map a chore. 

Horse riding in Rise of the Ronin
Click to enlarge

However, some of its systems and the way you’re made to tick off map objectives can make you feel that way: mainly in how it handles skill points.

Essentially, skill trees can feel a little convoluted since in addition to using regular skill points to gain new abilities in line with your four key stats; Strength, Intellect, Dexterity, and Charisma; some skills require different points named after their respective stat e.g. Strength points or Charisma points. 

You can gain these extra points by achieving higher bonds with allies or taking part in side activities you find on the map, but you’ll mostly need to chase after certain collectables like gathering many cats, taking photographs, or defeating fugitives. 

On one hand, this encourages you to interact with more of RotR’s world to earn those points.

On the other, it can grind the momentum or your playthrough to halt since instead of simply using normal skill points you’ve earned through earning experience (or "Karma"), you have to go out in the map, defeat a village of bandits to uncloud an area, go collect 5 or so cats so you can get that extra Charm point you need for that skill you wanted for the big story mission. 

On paper, an open-world gameplay system like Rise of the Ronin’s being intricate can sound great. In execution, though, some of these threads feel too interwoven. 

Be that as it may, some of the other systems players might not expect in Rise of the Ronin are more than welcome. 

One of the cats you can collect in Rise of the Ronin
Click to enlarge

Although the longhouse you get as a decorative base is a bit superfluous, its transmog system - where you can set the look of your gear to whatever you like whilst keeping the stats of what you’re wearing - is an example of where it’s done right, making it so you won’t have to keep going back to set your favourite outfit as you keep switching out better gear. 

As well as being able to give your pals gifts, enhance your bond, and maybe even pursue some romance - again feeling a little bit extra for some, but still a nice optional extra that doesn’t get in the way - the longhouse can gladly be used to change your ronin’s appearance if you want to give them a new tattoo or give them a hilariously high-pitched voice.

As a whole, Rise of the Ronin is experimenting with the merging of a lot of systems here. Some are great, some are fine but not bothersome, and some are downright annoying. Still, none of the cons that come with the latter are enough to stop the majority from having a good time. 

The Verdict

Accessible, fun, and full of ambition, Rise of the Ronin will have you hooked on its combat no matter what type of player you are - with an exciting story of engaging characters being bloodied icing on the cake. 

Sure, some of its RPG systems won’t be for everyone, but Team Ninja’s first open-world effort is almost everything you could want from an action-packed samurai game set in Japan. 

4/5

Reviewed on PlayStation 5. Review code provided by the publisher.

Ben is a Senior Guides Writer at GGRecon. Alongside his BA (Hons) in Business Management is a wealth of gaming and entertainment writing experience, having previously occupied roles as a Copywriter in e-commerce at Overclockers and Guides & SEO Writer at GameByte and FragHero. When not whipping up guides and reviews, Ben’ll be off playing the latest Pokemon games, Overwatch 2, Spider-Man, The Witcher, and Final Fantasy - all before reading manga and listening to Ice Nine Kills.